(This is the text of the TED-style talk I shared at “This is the Place” Affirmation International Conference 2014. I don’t yet know if there is video of the event, and I haven’t rerecorded it yet.)
Like many of you, I enjoy cooking and baking. As you learn to cook, you go through several stages of growth. At first, you follow simple recipes, you lock onto the basics. Over time you progress, learning new and different techniques. At some point, you realize that the skills you have learned are all parts of a toolbox that you can pull out and use as the situation requires. You no longer have to slavishly follow a recipe, and you can begin to improvise and experiment with techniques, flavors and ingredients that fit your taste. The day that I realized I knew enough to not be bound by a recipe, that I had a cooking toolbox available, was one of the most liberating of my life.
Today, I would like to introduce a framework that has been just as liberating for me in my experience as a gay Mormon as the day that I learned that I could adjust a recipe to my taste.
Simon Sinek, a leadership expert, introduced the concept of the Golden Circle in his book “Start With Why” as a reason some organizations prosper while others flounder. Properly applied, it helps us understand why we do what we do. I believe that the Golden Circle model allows me to find an authentic place to approach both my orientation and my religion.
WHAT is the easiest to explain, and the easiest to identify. We all know what we do on a day to day basis. From the perspective of Mormonism, this is also really easy. We call it the Sunday School answers: Read your scriptures, do your home teaching, go to church.
HOW is a little harder. It is the secret sauce of what we do, some organizations would call this a unique selling proposition. You could argue that from a church perspective that a HOW could be something like “With Faith in Every Footstep” or by “Following the Prophet”
The hardest to pin down is WHY. This isn’t the result of What we do. It isn’t the money a company makes doing what it does. It isn’t just having a temple recommend or making it to heaven. These are the results of What you do. Your Why is the purpose that drives you, why you get out of bed in the morning, why you are who you are. It is generally very difficult to put your Why into words at first, but it is often something that you can feel in your gut. With a bit of work and introspection, you can settle in on what your Why is.
When you are considering how to frame your actions, you can start with What or you can start with Why. When you start with What, you look at the long list of things that need to be done. You might feel overwhelmed, you might feel less than capable, you might feel obligated to do things that are uncomfortable or unhealthy for you. You could feel like there is a checklist that threatens to drown out the unique voice that you bring to the table.
On the other hand, when you start with Why, you begin to see that checklist as a toolbox. You ask yourself “Why am I going to do this or that thing? Why do I seek to participate or not participate with the church and its members?” And when you understand Why, you can reach into the toolbox of Mormonism and select a response that is authentic. If something is contrary to your Why, you can set it aside. You can focus on the things that just feel right. And you know what, when it feels right, that’s when you have found your Why.
Finding your Why is not easy. It is difficult to verbalize what makes you tick. You really have to listen to yourself, hear the stories that you tell about yourself, and find the things that stick, that make you feel right in the world, time and time again.
Let me tell you a little more about how I’ve started to understand my Why.
Over the last several years, as I finally trusted myself enough to begin my journey out of the closet, I had a lot of time for introspection. What was it that I wanted to be as a gay Mormon?
During that time, I was serving as the Executive Secretary in my ward. My bishop conducted interviews during the meeting block, and I helped him manage the flow of people into and out of his office. I rarely got to attend Sunday School or Elders Quorum, but I got to practice Hallway Mormonism at its finest. There was rarely a Sunday when I didn’t have a chance to talk to people who I otherwise might not have talked to, as they waited to visit with the Bishop. For just a moment, I got to be a part of their world as they struggled with all of the things Young Adults struggle with. I also got to celebrate their joys with them. I began to feel like this was what Mormonism for me was all about.
Several times over that same time period, I found myself coming back to a quote from Thomas Monson:
“Often we live side by side but do not communicate heart to heart. There are those within the sphere of our own influence who, with outstretched hands, cry out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”… [W]e are surrounded by those in need of our attention, our encouragement, our support, our comfort, our kindness—be they family members, friends, acquaintances, or strangers. We are the Lord’s hands here upon the earth, with the mandate to serve and to lift His children. He is dependent upon each of us.” (What Have I Done for Someone Else Today? October 2009)
The quote kept finding its way into my heart. I had it on my fridge door. I used it over and over in talks and trainings, referred to it in lessons, pulled it up on my phone whenever a teacher came anywhere near the topic, just in case I could share it.
Finally, I kept coming back to a verse in the book of Mosiah:
“… [A]s ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;… and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; … and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord[?]” (Mosiah 18: 8-10)
This was it. Alma had laid out my Why for me! Bear one others burdens, mourn with those that mourn, comfort those who need comfort. There are a hundred other scriptures about the requirements that come with baptism, but I kept coming back to this one. This was why I got so much joy out of my service as Executive Secretary. This was why the quote from Thomas Monson meant so much to me. This then was how I could find my place, my authentic place, within the Mormon world.
I am presently serving as a Primary teacher, pouring out as much love as I can for those kids. I have been surprised by the joy that service had brought me. I was also asked to serve as the Move coordinator in my Elders Quorum. I hesitated at first with that one. I was new in the ward, I really didn’t know anyone, and I wasn’t sure I could get people to show up, but then I remembered, Bear one another’s burdens (literally), and it fit into place.
There are things I don’t engage with much in the church. I don’t feel pressure to fast, but I find joy in paying a fast offering. I don’t feel guilty for not doing family history work, or not attending the temple. I try to make home teaching about being there as a friend and a support, rather than someone who stops by with a magazine and a “message”.
And the best part is that I can bring all of who I am to the table. Being gay does not prevent me from comforting those who need comfort, from bearing someone else’s burdens. I can be the gay guy who shows up to help people move. I can bring my unique perspective and my ability to love to the table in Primary.
Here’s the really powerful thing. I presently choose to affiliate with the church. But if at some point in the future, I choose not to, I won’t lose myself. Because I understand my Why, I can seek out other opportunities to lift up and serve others. And I can bring the same authenticity with me there too.
Now, my Why is obviously not the same as anyone else’s. It takes some effort, some introspection, and quite a bit of time to figure your Why out. But once you do, suddenly, you can know what the best way to interact with the church is. You have a toolbox, instead of a checklist, and you can use whichever tools work for you. You don’t have to use them all. That’s pretty liberating. That’s pretty authentic.
Understanding your Why can give you clarity. It can help you decide How you do What you do, in your relationship with the Church, with those around you, and really, in almost everything that you do. I hope you take that time to understand your Why, and find a path that is as authentic and unique as you are. Thank you!
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For further information about Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, please check out the following resources:
Check out his book: Start with Why, by Simon Sinek
Or watch his TEDxPugetSound talk: How Great Leaders Inspire Action
Or simply visit his website: StartWithWhy.com